Signed, sealed and ready to deliver — that’s Martin O’Neill as he sets his sights on steering Ireland to the World Cup finals in Russia in 2018.
Yesterday’s announcement of a provisional squad for next month’s qualifiers against Georgia and Moldova coincided with the manager confirming that, at long, long last, the issue of his contract with the FAI has been resolved.
Not that, according to the man himself, the matter was ever in doubt from the moment he shook hands on a new two-year deal with John Delaney on the eve of the Euro finals in June.
And, with the ink now dry on the bottom line — for Roy Keane and the rest of the backroom team as well as the manager — O’Neill was at pains yesterday to stress that while the delay might have created uncertainty in the minds of the media, it was never what he called a “botheration” for either himself or his players.
“I was speaking to two of the players one evening and saying in terms of looking at my own managerial record and in terms of longevity at particular clubs — Sunderland apart— I think that you would realise that I am not one for just downing tools at any given minute,” he revealed.
“But it never concerned the players. I think the players would be pretty pleased with the outcome of the Euros and pleased with their own performances.
“But I think the minute that they go back to their clubs, their minds are completely focused on club football.”
So they didn’t need reassurance, I asked him, that their boss was in it for the long haul?
“Absolutely not,” he replied. “What would I need to reassure players for? Do you know what players want to know?
“They want to know two things: they want to know if they are playing and if they are getting paid.
“They like the manager if they are playing and they are not that fond of him if they don’t.
“So you saw (Pep) Guardiola this week having to fend off an agent, which is no surprise.
“I don’t want to make light of it, I’m delighted to have done it.
“I think that John Delaney was comfortable with it once we shook hands so there was no major reason (for the delay in signing), no stumbling block, nothing has changed since we agreed on the deal.
“It wasn’t a matter of fumbling around looking for something else or changing the contract. That is true.”
Asked how he feels about the lingering perception that he might have been hedging his bets over the last few months, O’Neill was witheringly dismissive.
“I’m not concerned about perception. I’m too experienced to worry about what perception is. Hedging bets over what?
“I’ll tell you something now: my own personal view (is) I think Ireland’s best chance of qualification for the World Cup in Russia lies with myself and Roy Keane.
“It’s done and dusted now. I’m delighted he is coming and wants to do it.
“Who knows what happens the next day, who knows in a day and age when contracts really don’t mean anything? They haven’t for the last 25 years in football. Usually don’t.
“(But) I want to be around, want to do it, want to try and qualify. And it’s a long process again.
“It was the same when we started off in Georgia a couple of years ago..”
Expanding on his ringing declaration of intent and self-belief, O’Neill said: “You have to have some sort of confidence in yourself about the job when you take it on and while I’ve got the utmost regard for the previous manager whose own record at club level is fantastic, Ireland had dropped, they hadn’t qualified for the World Cup.
“And so I thought, ‘yeah, this is really worth taking on’. I really wanted to do well in it but you never know.
“Remember it was my first taste of international management.
“I kind of felt that I knew the differences involved, that you only had the players for a few days and what you did with them in those couple of days would be the most important thing.
“And qualification, as I said, justified it all. Do I have a stronger conviction now that we can qualify (for the World Cup)? The conviction was always there.
“I think it was solidified by us qualifying (for the Euros). If we hadn’t qualified in the first place, I mightn’t even be sitting here talking to you now, but that’s the nature of the game.”
Apart from stressing that there was “never a prayer” that he would have walked away when he was linked with Leicester City in the summer of 2015, O’Neill refused to be drawn on whether there had been interest expressed by any other club in more recent times.
“I don’t think that it’s something I really should be needing to answer,” he said. “I’ve signed a deal and I’m delighted to have done so.” Likewise, he declined to specify if his new two-year contract contains an exit clause.
“Listen, I’m not going into the ins and outs of it,” he said. “I really don’t think that’s important. I’m not in the habit of disappearing.
“We’re trying to push on again from the Euros. But that’s done and dusted.It’s a new campaign now and I want to do well in the competition.
“And I think Roy’s got exactly the same commitment, wanting to drive on. As I say, who knows what might happen? I don’t know, is the answer.
“But is there a determination to go and try to qualify for Russia? Absolutely.”
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